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Why Should the Census Matter to Our Communities? An Interview with Kemi Ilesanmi

This spring, we’re looking at The LP’s commitment to valuing place through the lens of mapping, counting, documenting, and otherwise representing our communities: particularly communities of color and communities living on modest incomes in New York City. 2020 is also a Census year, which provides an opportunity for all residents of a place to make themselves visible and have a say in how their community is resourced and understood by the government. LP Media and Storytelling Manager Emma Colón spoke with Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi about how she came to be involved in Census organizing, why it’s important, and the unique role the cultural community can play in getting out the count.

For a resource list about the census compiled by The LP and our friends at Animating Democracy and NOCD-NY, click here.

Header image: Processing census data in 1960, via Wikimedia Commons.


Emma Colón (EC): Kemi, how did you get started organizing for the Census? Have you done this in previous years?

Kemi Ilesanmi (KI): I first came to the census after reading an article in The New Yorker in 1996, when the magazine did a Black issue. The article was looking at the history of the census, particularly in relation to how African Americans have been historically counted and specified. A big part of that history of course is the Three-Fifths Compromise. Then, after emancipation, all the way up until the 1960 Census, the census taker was the one to determine an individual’s race, just by looking at you—self-reporting was not widely used until 1960. Now the practice has switched, and we self-report for the census. 

In the 90s, multiracial people agitated to be able to identify themselves as such; not just in one box or another. I am not multiracial, but my initial interest in the census was around the social politics of it, and how every time there’s a new one, there’s some kind of politicized fight: gerrymandering, the number of boxes we’re allowed to check, whether we’re going to be forced to reveal our citizenship, and so on. It’s a very politicized space, and it’s been fascinating to watch that over the years.

1920 Census nativity and mother tongue detail. Image via census.gov.

KI: Since then, I’ve come to know a lot more about the consequences of the census; for example, how the count impacts the things we do or don’t get in our neighborhoods and communities. In 2018, I joined the Sterling Network. One of the members, Betsy Plum, was then the policy director for the New York Immigration Coalition. There were 50 of us in the room, all coming from different organizations and perspectives, and two years in advance, she said, “You’re the people I want to make sure know that there’s something coming down the pike that you need to be animated around and doing something about.” And that was the census. That’s what planted the seed for me: as opposed to just being fascinated by the census, I could do something about it.

It also became clearer to me what some of the stakes were. There are issues of losing state representation based on the census count. Blocks of government funding for everything from schools, to infrastructure, to hospital beds, to food stamps, to Section 8, to Medicare; money for Pre-K and early childhood education; all of that ties into the census. And you’re stuck for 10 years with whatever numbers the count results in. In a city as densely populated as New York, the stakes are high because there are so many people. 

EC: That’s a great segue, because I wanted to ask why, in your opinion, the arts and culture sector should see the census as important? Why is doing something about it important from our position in this sphere?

KI: When Betsy threw down the gauntlet about all of us making a plan around the 2020 census, my immediate thought was: artists are translators. Art is a space to make something that’s difficult to understand, more understandable. It’s a space to wrestle with things. I thought about how artists could play a role in making things clearer.  

Artist-created 2020 Census graphic highlighting the 10-year impact of the census count. Image by Blossom from #CreativesForTheCount

KI: Every category of the population that is historically undercounted is a category of people that the cultural community is connected to and cares about. Those groups are: Black and indigenous folks, full stop. People of color too, more widely. LGBTQIA folks, and in particular trans and intersex folks. Immigrants and English language learners. Undocumented folks. Renters. People living in public housing. Formerly incarcerated folks. Disabled people. Low-income people. Students. Children under the age of five whose parents don’t know to report them. And then—particularly this year because the census is going predominantly digital—folks without access to the internet or digital resources generally. 

Artists are translators. Art is a space to make something that’s difficult to understand, more understandable.

Hearing about who is usually undercounted really touched me because these are people that The LP connects to through our art projects and by being in community. The state of New York is nowhere near the national average for census turnout, and a lot of that has to do with our communities being undercounted.

Because The LP is a POC-centered organization, I’ve also been thinking deeply about the fact that there’s a lot of mistrust of the government among vulnerable groups, and for good reason. And yet the consequences are so high because what we trade off for lack of trust and non-participation is our own ability to thrive. It means our kids don’t get properly educated, our healthcare is compromised, our streets are falling apart, and so on. Structural racism is already going to make accessing equitable resources challenging, but if the state also doesn’t have enough money, then it’s really a lose-lose.

EC: Going back to arts and culture: what role do you think artists and organizations can play in all of this?

KI: So the role for artists to play, and arts and culture organizations more specifically, is that so many of us are deeply connected to undercounted groups. We bring abundance and assets, and recognize their own cultural assets in turn. It’s a reciprocal relationship. We’re seen as a trusted partner—in many cases, we’re seen as part of their communities. We want to use that power to say to our communities: “I totally understand why you may have questions about why to participate in [the census], but here’s why it’s really important anyway.” 

As an example, Ifetayo is an arts education organization in Brooklyn that recently received funding to help increase the 2020 Census count. To do that, they’re planning to work with their youth to make skits about the census, and then incorporate those into different recitals and pre-existing programs that families and community members attend. So as arts organizations, we can all ask ourselves how we can insert census awareness into our everyday activities and amplify what we have, which is access, trust, and the ability to meet people where they are. We have access to many platforms to help amplify information—our social media presence, our newsletters, our programs. We can also activate our artist communities to participate in the census themselves and help get out the count.

The role for artists to play, and arts and culture organizations more specifically, is that so many of us are deeply connected to undercounted groups.

EC: What advice do you have for anyone who is revved up by this, and wants to help get out the count in their school, their block, or their community?

KI: For most people I know—The LP community, my friends, my family, my 76-year-old aunt—the thing they have is their social media platforms. A couple of retweets and repostings can create an opportunity for conversation and information sharing. And as far as The LP, we can commit to providing quality, accurate information around the census.

The other thing one can do in New York City in particular is to join your NOCC—which is your Neighborhood Organizing Census Committee. I’m a member of my NOCC, and my own personal commitment is to try and get everyone in my building to participate in the census and be counted. I’ll post info on the building listserv and post information on our community board. My own building is definitely something I feel I can do. I’m also going to make sure that my whole family gets counted. My mother and sister don’t live in New York, but I’m making it my responsibility. So those are some things I’m personally doing and that I encourage other people to do.

Many different community-based organizations are providing a ton of free materials in many languages. So, let’s commit to doing whatever it is that we can do with some intention. Just think, what do I have access to? Who do I have access to? What are the platforms, programs, and events that we could use to get information out? We don’t have to be the experts, but as organizations we can direct people to further information. There are going to be a variety of census-related events at places like BRIC, Brooklyn Museum, and El Museo, so we can help make sure people know about those, and direct people to where they can have their questions answered. Another resource you might be able to leverage as an organization is people—whether you have a cohort of artists, a big staff, or volunteers. Say another organization is having a big Census party and needs volunteers: you can encourage your people to help out. We don’t all have to do the same thing; there are lots of ways to contribute. 

EC: Thank you so much for sharing, Kemi.

KI: Thank you.


This interview is part of a series of original writings, videos, and interviews on the themes of mapping, understanding place, and celebrating the value of our localities. Over the course of the next several weeks, the series will explore how both data and interpersonal relationships form the basis of how a place is understood, by those who live there and those who do not, and how art and creativity can impact that understanding. Follow the series on our blog.

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